Review: ‘Needle in a Timestack,’ starring Leslie Odom Jr., Cynthia Erivo, Orlando Bloom and Freida Pinto

January 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom Jr. in “Needle in a Timestack” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Needle in a Timestack”

Directed by John Ridley

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the sci-fi drama “Needle in a Timestack” features a racially diverse cast of characters (black, white and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: In this time-bending story, two men and two women experience their lives differently when the men and women pair off as couples at different points in their lives. 

Culture Audience: “Needle in a Timstack” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a convoluted, poorly written and extremely dull movie.

Orlando Bloom and Freida Pinto in “Needle in a Timestack” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Looking for a needle in a haystack is more fun than watching “Needle in a Timestack.” This excruciatingly dull movie tries to have a “musical chairs” approach to romance, but it’s ultimately a time-wasting bore with nothing to say. Unfortunately, this misguided movie doesn’t do much with its talented cast except give them snooze-inducing dialogue and scenarios that are just too ill-conceived to take.

“Needle in a Timestack” is based on Robert Silverberg’s 1966 collection of sci-fi short stories the same name. It’s easy to see how “Needle in a Timestack” screenwriter/director John Ridley thought that the intriguing concept of time-traveling changing the course of people’s romances that should be made into a movie. But this concept just turns into a haphazard mishmash of tedious scenes where the actors look almost as confused as viewers will be if they try to wade through this cinematic muck.

“Needle in a Timestack” is about two men and two women who have intertwined romances, but the main couple that audiences are supposed to be rooting for are spouses Nick Mikkelsen (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) and Janine Mikkelsen (played by Cynthia Erivo), who are the couple who gets the most screen time. Nick works in real-estate development for an architectural firm called Randall Corp. Janine is a photographer. Nick and Janine have been married for five years. (“Needle in a Timestack” takes place in the U.S., but the movie was actually filmed in British Columbia.)

The other two people in this quasi-love quadrangle are business mogul Tommy Hambleton (played by Orlando Bloom) and Alex Leslie (played by Freida Pinto), who are presented as possible threats to Nick and Janine’s love for each other. At various points in the movie, these couplings are shown: Nick and Janine; Tommy and Janine; Nick and Alex; and Tommy and Alex. The movie then plays a lot of tricks over which scene might be a flashback, an altered reality, or possibly a figment of someone’s imagination.

At first, Nick and Janine seem like a blissful married couple in love. When they’re at a house party together, Nick looks adoringly at Janine and says to her, “Sometimes, when you’re not looking, I watch you from across the room. And I ask myself, ‘If I didn’t know you, would I still fall in love with you?'”

The beginning of the movie shows that Janine has made a sad video of herself where tears are rolling down her cheeks. Janine says wistfully as she looks into the camera: “Love is drawn in the form of a circle. No one knows where it begins, and it never really ends. You and I, we are forever and always and all ways.”

Why is Janine so upset? And why is she talking like a cheesy Valentine’s Day card? The movie comes back to this video as a placemark to show viewers that Janine might know something that some of the other characters might not know. That’s because in this movie, memories and versions of reality can be erased by people who have the money to time travel and alter the fates of themselves and loved ones. Messing with fate in this way results in a “time shift,” which can usually be detected when people get nosebleeds.

Nick experiences a series of unsettling time shifts that are so alarming to him that he tells Janine that he suspects someone is trying to “erase” their marriage and possibly their memories of each other. Nick eventually figures out that Janine’s wealthy and jealous ex-husband Tommy is causing these time traveling manipulations because Janine broke up with Tommy, and Tommy is still bitter about it. When Nick confronts Tommy (who’s in charge of a company called Hambleton Solutions) about his suspicions, Tommy smugly replies by saying, “No one can really change the past. Just clean up the present a little.”

Nick is so sure that Tommy is going to erase Nick’s memories, Nick gets help from a company that sells Past Protect, which is described as a cloud service for storage of memories. People upload their photos and files on Past Protect to preserve memories. There’s some very manufactured and predictable drama about the Past Protect part of the story.

The rest of “Needle in a Timestack” sluggishly goes back and forth in different “realities” that show the four different couplings that happen between Nick, Janine, Tommy and Alex. None of these pairings is the least bit interesting or sexy, although the movie tries its hardest to make it look like Nick and Janine are the most “passionate” of the four pairings. The personalities of all these characters are so bland, it’ll be hard for viewers to remember much about the movie’s characters.

Odom and Erivo seem to be doing their best to play a convincing married couple, but their acting just seems a bit too forced in their love scenes. Bloom and Pinto look like they’re just going through the motions and reciting their lines. It doesn’t help that almost all of the dialogue in the film is awkward and stilted. (Trivia note: Odom and Pinto also portrayed a couple in the 2020 post-apocalyptic drama “Only,” which isn’t a very good movie but at least it’s much more interesting than “Needle in a Timestack.”)

“Needle in a Timestack” also has a time-wasting subplot about Nick’s neurotic younger sister Zoe Mikkelsen (played by Jadyn Wong), who’s a self-admitted commitment-phobe when it comes to romance. There are several tiresome scenes in the movie showing Nick and Zoe having phone conversations where Zoe constantly talks about her best friend Sibila (played by Laysla De Oliveira), who’s originally from Portugal.

Zoe invites Nick to go rock climbing with her and Sibila, but Nick declines the offer because he thinks rock climbing is too dangerous. And in a movie where people try to change something in the past that they didn’t want to happen, it’s very easy to guess what happens during this rock climbing trip and what someone wants to do to change it. However, this subplot didn’t need to be in the story and just seems like the filmmakers’ way of stretching the already thin plot even more.

It’s not as if Ridley is new to making movies from adapted screenplays. He won an adapted screenplay Oscar for writing the 2013 drama “12 Years a Slave,” a movie where he was also an executive producer. “Needle in a Timestack” tries to look like a movie that’s a mind-bending puzzle, but it’s really a series of scenes that are patched together like different people’s hazy memories. Much of the story becomes unfocused to the point where viewers might be wondering why this movie was even made. “Needle in a Timestack” can easily put viewers to sleep, so at least the movie is good for the purpose of curing insomnia.

Lionsgate released “Needle in a Timestack” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 15, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on October 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Retaliation,’ starring Orlando Bloom, Janet Montgomery, Charlie Creed-Miles and Anne Reid

July 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Orlando Bloom in “Retaliation” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Retaliation” 

Directed by Ludwig Shammasian and Paul Shammasian

Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the dramatic film “Retaliation” features an all-white cast representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash:  An enraged demolition worker seeks revenge on someone from his past who has moved back into the area.

Culture Audience: “Retaliation” will appeal primarily to people who can tolerate watching an emotionally realistic movie about brutal abuse and trauma.

James Smillie in “Retaliation” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

The expression “Hurt people hurt people” comes from the real psychological cause and effect of people who’ve been hurt by abuse who then turn their rage on themselves and/or other people. That’s exactly what’s going on with Malky (played by Orlando Bloom), the troubled soul at the center of the intense drama “Retaliation.”

Directed by brothers Ludwig Shammasian and Paul Shammasian, “Retaliation” (which was formerly titled “Romans”) isn’t a simple revenge film. It’s also a scathing commentary on institutions and people who cover up or deny abuse, thereby allowing the abuse to be inflicted on more people, with no real accountability.

Malky is a 37-year-old unmarried, childless man who’s a demolition worker somewhere in England. It’s an ideal job for someone with the amount of rage that Malky has. And in this story, the building that he and the rest of the men in his demolition crew are destroying is a Catholic church where Malky used to go as a child. A giant crucifix in the middle of the church is symbolic of different things to different people in this story.

Malky lives with his widowed mother (played by Anne Reid), who’s a devout Catholic. His mother (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) likes to reminisce about happier times, before Malky became an angry and disturbed person. In an early scene in the movie, she and Malky sit in their living room, as she looks through old photo albums and rambles on about the people and places in those photos.

Malky’s story is revealed in bits and pieces, like a puzzle, but those puzzle pieces are very easy to put together, since the movie drops obvious hints about what happened to Malky to make him filled with so much animosity, before everything is revealed in the last third of the film. People expecting this movie to have a lot of non-stop fight scenes will be disappointed because the real battles are the ones that Malky has with himself.

Malky (who is covered in tattoos on the front and back of his torso) has a girlfriend/lover named Emma (played by Janet Montgomery), who works as a waitress at Malky’s favorite pub. It’s a bar where the co-workers whom Malky is closest to—a gruff Scot named Joe (played by Alex Ferns) and a meek teenager named Billy (played by Rory Nolan)—also hang out on a frequent basis.

Malky is an ex-con who went to prison for a violent crime. And one day, Joe tells Emma the full story of why Malky went to prison. It gives further insight into Malky’s character and why he might not be the cold-hearted jerk that he can appear to be.

Malky and Emma have an up-and-down relationship because he has a habit of emotionally pushing her away when he might feel too vulnerable. It’s clear that she’s in love with him, and she’s hoping for a more serious commitment to the relationship that Malky hasn’t been ready to give to her.

And he’s not exactly a romantic type: Their sexual liaisons are usually in a dirty back room at the pub. There are no flowers or love notes in this relationship. Malky spends a lot of time at Emma’s place, but he won’t make the commitment of living with her. And it’s not really a courtship if Malky shows no interest in taking the relationship to the next level.

Even though Malky has told Emma that he doesn’t want their relationship to be serious or exclusive, he’s also very jealous and insecure about the possibility that Emma might leave him. Therefore, Malky gets very upset with Emma when he sees that she’s accepted a car ride home from a male friend named Pete (played by John Whitby), whom Malky is sure is really trying to seduce Emma.

Emma insists that she and Pete are just casual friends, but Malky starts a mean-spirited argument with her about it. This quarrel is Malky’s way of testing how far he can push Emma before she’s had enough, as if he’s daring her to break up with him. She’s aware of his mind games, and won’t give in to Malky’s predictions that she will eventually leave him.

There’s a Catholic priest named Paul (played by Charlie Creed-Miles), who preaches on the streets near where Malky works. Paul gets to know Malky, and ends up playing a pivotal role in Malky’s chaotic journey. But how far will Malky go when his thoughts of revenge start to consume him?

While out grocery shopping with his mother one day, Malky’s violent temper is on display when he sees two young men horsing around in the aisles. During this harmless playfighting, the two guys accidentally knock some merchandise from some high shelves. Malky pounces on them and starts a fist fight, before his mother and some store employees stop the melee.

Later, at home, his mother shames Malky and tells him that he’s become an embarrassment to her. She also keeps telling him that she knows something is wrong with him, but he denies it. He just tells his mother that he’s tired. But it’s obvious that something is very wrong with Malky.

Malky has a disturbing secret fetish, which is shown in the movie. (Be warned: This is not for the faint of heart.) He sodomizes himself with a long cylinder-shaped stick, while watching himself do that in the mirror. It’s clear from the expression on his face that he gets some kind of sexual satisfaction from this act. What would cause someone to commit this type of self-harm?

The answer comes one day when Malky is in the men’s room of the pub. He sees a white-haired older man (played by James Smillie), who’s wearing a black suit and standing at a nearby urinal. And the expression on Malky’s face is as if he’s seen a ghost. Malky later sees in a newspaper article that a prominent member of the community who had moved away years ago has now moved back in the area.

The rest of the movie shows Malky’s inner and outer turmoil, as he tries to come to grips with the fact that this person is now living in the area again. It will be easy to figure out why Malky wants revenge on this person, once this person’s occupation is revealed in the story. (All of that information won’t be revealed in this review.)

As the troubled and tormented Malky, Bloom gives a very convincing and riveting performance as someone who is haunted by demons from his past. The question throughout the film is if or how Malky is going to deal with his thoughts of revenge. And in case it wasn’t clear enough that Malky intends to get violent, there’s a scene in the movie that shows Malky holding a sledgehammer while waiting outside a building for the person who’s the target of his rage to show up.

The Shammasian brothers don’t give viewers much respite from the onslaught of emotional pain in this movie, but the directors and screenwriter Geoff Thompson do give viewers a lot to think about, in terms of how many other people like Malky are out there who’ve gone through the same disturbing abuse and betrayals of trust. “Retaliation” has a definite message that living with this type of trauma is even worse than any prison sentence that could be imposed for getting hateful revenge.

Saban Films released “Retaliation” in select on digital and VOD on July 24, 2020. The movie was released in various countries in Europe, as of 2017.

Review: ‘The Outpost,’ starring Scott Eastwood, Caleb Landry Jones and Orlando Bloom

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Caleb Landry Jones (second from right) and Scott Eastwood (far right) in “The Outpost” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“The Outpost”

Directed by Rod Lurie

Culture Representation: Based on real events and taking place in northern Afghanistan in 2009, the war drama “The Outpost” features a racially diverse (white, African American, Asian, Latino and one Native American) and almost-all male cast portraying members of the U.S. Army, Afghanistan natives and Pakistani Taliban fighters.

Culture Clash: During the war in Afghanistan, a group of U.S. Army soldiers stationed at a remote outpost come under attack by Taliban terrorists.

Culture Audience: “The Outpost” will appeal to primarily to people who like war movies that realistically portray the terrifying battles and deep emotional toll that war can take on people who fight on the front lines.

Orlando Bloom in “The Outpost” (Photo by Simon  Varsano/Screen Media Films)

Based on a true story, the effective drama “The Outpost” recreates the Afghanistan War’s Battle of Kamdesh (also known as the Battle of Outpost Keating) that took place on October 3, 2009, in such brutal and realistic detail, that some viewers watching it might feel as if they’ve gone through an emotional war zone just by seeing this movie. The battle doesn’t take place until halfway through this 123-minute movie. But by then, viewers get a sense of what life in the outpost was like for those involved before some of their lives were tragically lost.

Capably directed by Rod Lurie, “The Outpost” begins with this on-screen text to give viewers a historical view of the story in the movie: “In 2006, the U.S. Army established a series of outposts in northern Afghanistan to promote counterinsurgency. The intent was to connect with the locals and to stop the flow of weapons and Taliban fighters from Pakistan.”

One of those outposts was PRT Kamdesh, a relatively small station that was located at the bottom of a valley surrounded by the Hindu Kush Mountains. The location was remote and an easy “sitting duck” target if attackers wanted to use the mountain range as the perfect position to fire guns and bombs down below. And that’s exactly what happened when about 400 Taliban fighters ambushed the approximately 54 U.S. Army men who were stationed at the outpost.

Before that happened, the movie shows the different personalities of several of the Army men at the outpost, as well as the culture that the Army was trying to establish while these U.S. military personnel were living among Afghan civilians. There are multiple scenes of the captain of the team trying to keep the peace with an increasingly frustrated and suspicious group of locals, led by Afghan elders, who are slightly appeased when they are offered money by the U.S. military to help build schools in the area.

Paranoia and tensions run high at the outpost and the nearby communities. The U.S. soldiers capture a young Afghan man taking photos of the outpost, and they temporarily hold him for questioning. The local Afghan people consider it to be a kidnapping.

And although U.S. military men at the outpost have Afghan men helping with translating and acting as lookouts, many of the locals start to feel disrespected by the American soldiers. Some of the soldiers are arrogantly skeptical of a local Afghan man who keeps warning them that Taliban fighters will soon come to attack the outpost.

Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson adapted the movie’s screenplay from the nonfiction book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” which was written by CNN anchor Jake Tapper. (Tapper is also one of the executive producers of “The Outpost” movie. The end of the movie also includes clips of CNN interviews that Tapper did with some of the surviving soldiers.)

There are numerous military men in the story, but some are written as more distinct than others. Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha (played by Scott Eastwood) is the quintessential “good guy” soldier who, for the most part, gets along with everyone. Staff Sergeant Ty Carter (played by Caleb Landry Jones) is the group’s misfit loner.

First Lieutenant Benjamin Keating (played by Orlando Bloom) is the no-nonsense leader of the outpost. He expresses his intentions by telling his team, “We need to keep a good relationship with the locals. Respect keeps us safe.”

Another example of Keating’s leadership skills shows that he can be tough but merciful. In one scene, Keating admonishes a young soldier named Ed Faulkner (played by Will Attenborough) for smoking too much hashish.  Faulkner denies that he’s addicted to hashish, but Keating disagrees. Rather than docking Faulkner’s salary (because Keating says that money eventually doesn’t mean much to soldiers at war), Keating demotes Faulkner to the ranking of private, and tells Faulkner that this is his last chance to clean up his act.

As with any large group of people who work together, there is camaraderie and there is conflict. During the good times, the men party together and share stories of their loved ones at home. Tension-filled arguments sometimes turn into physical fights, such as when hotheaded Staff Sergeant Justin T. Gallegos (played by Jacob Scipio) angrily kicks and pushes down Private First Class Zorias Yunger (played by Alfie Stewart) for shooting bullets too close to Gallegos’ head.

And sometimes the cruelty to each other is emotional, such as when Carter is ridiculed and disrespected by some of his fellow soldiers for being a little bit of an oddball. (Carter’s eccentric ways include wearing shorts during combat.) Stephan Mace (played by Chris Born) is one of the soldiers who gives Carter a hard time.

A lot of things happen in “The Outpost” can’t be described in detail because it’s spoiler information for people who don’t know the whole story. However, it should come as no surprise that several of the men don’t make it out alive. The Taliban attack is portrayed in horrifying detail, but even among the terror, there’s a lot of inspiring bravery.

As the “misfit” Carter, Jones is the clear standout actor in the movie, particularly in the second half of the film. The dialogue in “The Outpost” isn’t very memorable, but some of the scenes were obviously written as an admirable effort to show these military men as individuals, instead of blending them all together as a generic group.

For example, there’s a sequence that shows all of the men calling home, and viewers see snippets of each and every one of their conversations. It’s a great way of showing their individuality and to give a glimpse into their personal lives. And there are small touches of humor in this serious movie, such as when a soldier holds a photo of a special female and tells another soldier that when he gets home, he can’t wait to hold and kiss her—and then it’s revealed that the female in the photo is the soldier’s dog.

Lorenzo Senatore’s immersive cinematography for “The Outpost” also makes it one of the best war movies released in 2020. In addition, the film makes a bold statement at the end by not doing the war-movie cliché conclusion of showing people being awarded medals, but instead by showing how one of the surviving heroes is wracked with survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people skip watching the end credits of a movie, but it’s worth sticking around for all of the end credits for “The Outpost.” And for viewers who get teary-eyed during realistic war movies, it might help to have some tissues nearby.

Screen Media Films released “The Outpost” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 3, 2020.

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